History fascinates me because I wasn’t there – at least not for a significant chunk of it. With accusations of “revisionism” being thrown around when some aspect of history gets uncomfortable, I found James Alexander Thom’s novel Sign-Talker a beautiful account of Lewis and Clark’s monumental expedition as seen through the eyes of their hunter and interpreter, half-Shawnee George Drouillard. The novel seemed to encompass the ideals, both noble and flawed, of everyone involved – but again, I wasn’t there.
According to Thom’s afterword, Sacagawea has been romanticized in her role as Lewis and Clark’s guide. While she had a specific role in the journey’s success, Drouillard served as their most important “hired hand” due to his exceptional skills at hunting and interpreting languages both spoken and signed. Throughout the novel, Thom presents excerpts from the explorer’s journals, poor spelling included, to supplement the novel’s story. Thom’s writing style reminds me of a journal: the details of the landscape and peoples encountered seem as detailed as William Clark’s measurements of moth’s wingspans he finds along the way.
Meriwether Lewis uncharacteristically provided one of the more humorous moments in the novel when months of work resulted in his iron boat leaking and finally sinking. He exclaimed “Damn, what a time to run out of whiskey!” While he may not have actually said this, it’s documented that a significant amount of whiskey was brought with them and it ran out a year before the end of the journey. Thom also insinuates that Lewis liked his whiskey a little too much.
Drouillard’s incredible value to the expedition is contrasted with the detachment he feels being half-Indian among whitemen. “Indian” and “whitemen” are the words Thom uses which are probably historically correct by 19th century standards if not politically correct by 21st century standards. While Drouillard has more of an affinity toward the various tribes encountered during the expedition, he feels “left out” because of his association with Lewis and Clark.
While learning about the personalities, attitudes, ideals and implications involved in the journey was well worth the read, I enjoyed most the anticipation of getting to the Pacific Ocean:
There was nothing to say. They had all seen immense wonders beyond imagination in these two years, and should have been immune to amazement by now.
George Drouillard stood in the wind and the noise watching the light play over the endless water. This was the last edge of the land known as Turtle Island by his own people.
Never having seen the Pacific Ocean myself, I can’t think of a better description.